The urgent need to change the league structure for men’s lacrosse in the South of England
The South of England Men’s Lacrosse Association (SEMLA) has seen 6 teams withdraw from the league during this season; Birmingham, Bournemouth, Royal Holloway, Brunel, Chichester and Walcountian Blues 2’s. Whilst lacrosse participation continues to grow, according to official stats, we need to fix the root cause that hinders long term growth.
The warning sign before a team folds is conceded games. Over the past four SEMLA seasons a shocking 26% of games were conceded. In the lower divisions sometimes over 50% of games were conceded and it’s no surprise that most of those teams have now folded.
Q) What is the root cause for conceded games?
A) The distance, time and cost to travel to many away games.
The current East / West structure
Ignoring the top Premiership division, lower divisions in SEMLA are divided into East and West leagues. This has worked for many years with the primary ‘hubs’ of lacrosse being the South East (in and around the M25) and the west leg of the M4 between Bath and South Wales. However as the sport has grown and new clubs have formed, the huge size of these regions is a constant problem.
Exeter to Southampton = 120 miles / 2:45 hours each way
Milton Keynes to Eastbourne = 135 miles / 2:45 hours each way
Canterbury to Oxford = 140 miles / 2:45 hours each way
Cambridge to Eastbourne = 140 miles / 3 hours each way
Plymouth to Warwick University = 220 miles / 3:30 hours each way
It takes a vast amount of effort to start up a new club. It’s just as hard to establish a 2nd team within an existing club. The number of clubs or teams that have started but folded over recent years is shocking. In addition to the clubs I listed at the beginning the following came and went in recent years;
- Purley 2
- Cardiff Harlequins A
- Maidstone and Maidstone 2
- Welwyn Warriors 3
Any club or team that folds is a tragedy. The personal time and money invested goes down the drain. Many of the novice players go back to playing other sports. Equipment purchased gets put in a shed and sometimes never used again.
Where have all these players gone?
Some of these teams heavily relied on student players from a local university. University lacrosse is booming. The problem is BUCS travel to away games is generally organised by the Uni. Saturday SEMLA travel is your own responsibility. There are many students playing Wednesday BUCS games who choose not to play for their local SEMLA team because they can’t afford (time and money) 2-3+ hours each way to an away game.
Non student players from folded clubs have either hung up their sticks or travel long distances to play with another club. Many, especially those with young families, can’t commit to a full season and look to just play home games.
The Maidstone and Canterbury clubs have merged, which is much better than both folding and mirrors what happened back in 2000 when Kenton merged with Beckenham to form the Spencer club.
Reducing travel time/distance is the obvious solution evidenced by engagement with the SEMLA community via social media. A survey on SEMLA Facebook group asked why teams have conceded games.
Facebook Survey, December 2017
Q) Why was a SEMLA game conceded?
– 107 people said due to travel/time distance
– 28 people said due to Wednesday BUCS games taking priority for their players
– 4 people said because of home team logistics, e.g. pitch unavailability
– 2 people said because the game would be non-competitive so why bother to play
No change for the top tier teams
I want to make it clear that moving to a more regional structure does not need to apply to top tier teams in the current SEMLA Premiership. Conceded games and travel issues are not a problem for the top teams. They have committed player pools and the reality of lacrosse in SEMLA is that the top teams will always be London / South East centric. Credit goes to the likes of Bristol who are holding their own in this seasons’ Premiership in mid table given every away game requires a long trip along the M4.
How big should a region be?
Lacrosse in the outer reaches of SEMLA like in Plymouth, or when there was a team in Norwich, will always require a significant travel commitment. However elsewhere regions can be formed where most teams have an average journey time of 1 hour. That’s reasonable and should be the basis for dividing up the country.
Most of the SEMLA area divides quite nicely into regions of various sizes. The M4 and River Thames is an obvious north/south divide. Nobody enjoys traversing half of the M25 on a Saturday lunchtime. There are also strong arguments to make London its own region. There are lots of ways to cut up the country based on three principles;
- The total number of games per team is maintained at around 18-22 games per season
- The desired average journey time between teams within a region is 1 hour
- The desired maximum journey time between teams within a region is 2 hours, caveated by the reality of UK geography for teams like Canterbury, Plymouth etc.
Here are some examples of how SEMLA regions could be defined. Any could work. One of the proposals on the table from Nik Roberts is a combination of the 4 region and 7 region structure as two parallel competitions. That may provide the optimal solution subject agreement by vote at the SEMLA Annual General Meeting (as would any proposed change).
6 regions inc. SEMLA expansion into the Midlands
More reasons to go with a more regional structure
Smaller regions and less travel will make it much less daunting for a new club to form or an existing club to consider forming a 2nd team. There’s nothing worse than attracting a new/novice player to lacrosse only to see their mouths hit the floor when they find out most of Saturday will be taken up sat in a car.
Some in lacrosse circles think the sport can be maintained solely from university players joining local clubs when they graduate. While players coming from universities are essential we also must keep attracting new players from the local community. Also many graduates end up working in London, which a great for the London clubs, less good for the rest. Lacrosse needs to appeal the widest cohort as possible as we’re competing with all the other minor sports to find players.
This leads on to the subject of junior development.
Without restructuring around smaller regions I believe junior lacrosse in the South will never grow beyond its current (small) size. It’s only due to 100% commitment from coaches and parents to run a junior programme given the current geography. Take the
Foxes Pythons junior programme in Portsmouth as an example. Their nearest opposition are the Spencer juniors, 70 miles away.
Smaller regions will encourage new senior clubs to form. Junior programmes need lots of volunteers. You are more likely to get help from a couple of senior players on a Sunday morning for 2 hours if they have not spent 6 hours the day before travelling for an away game. More clubs, closer together, will eventually allow for regional junior leagues to form.
There are some obvious large towns in the South without a current SEMLA team that would struggle to form a club based on the current league structure, due to the travel commitment, but which could succeed with a more regional set-up. These could include the likes of Swindon, Chelmsford, Colchester, Taunton, Leicester, Coventry, Basingstoke, Portsmouth, Swansea or anywhere in North London.
Why now? Can we wait a couple more years?
We can’t delay action on this. Without change it’s quite possible that another clutch of teams may fold during next season. The top teams who want the best possible quality of lacrosse are not affected. All the proposals I’ve seen over the past few months reduce the size of the top tier division (currently called the Premiership) to allow the top 5 or 6 teams to play each other more frequently to close the quality gap between the best in SEMLA and the best in NEMLA (the English Northern league). But if we don’t change the structure for the lower divisions we cut off the supply line for the next generation of players.
Who loses out when we go more regional?
No change can be universally supported. If there was a perfect model we’d of adopted it already. The teams that benefit least from smaller regions may be those just below the top tier(s) who are the better teams placed in a regional division/conferences. The overall standard of games for such teams may decrease slightly. They can battle for promotion up to a non-regional higher division and the idea of playoffs at the end of the season is appealing. I think the vast majority of current SEMLA clubs/teams will fully support a more regional restructure as they will see it as essential for the future of our great sport.
When proposals are shared by SEMLA please discuss them with your clubs and support any proposal that allows for more regional lacrosse for the lower divisions for the newer/smaller clubs and 2nd/3rd/4th teams from larger clubs.
About the Author
Rob Gooch started playing lacrosse at Loughborough University in 1991. He started playing SEMLA lacrosse in 1998 with Kenton, then played for Spencer until 2015 when he started a club in his home town of Milton Keynes.